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Billboard Industry is Back for (A Lot) More
By Staff Writer
April 22, 2017
 
"Billboard Bob" is gone, but the billboard industry is back with a vengeance.
 
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg Republican, earned the moniker in 2011 when he co-sponsored legislation allowing billboard companies to chop down more trees to make their signs more visible. The new law also stripped local governments of much of their power in regulating billboards.
 
Rucho has retired from the General Assembly, but other legislators - primarily House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis - are now taking the lead in further helping billboard companies at the expense of trees and local governments. The House could take up as many as five bills this week that are friendly to the industry.
 
Together, they represent an exhaustive wish list from billboard companies. Without a public outcry, at least some appear likely to pass.
 
Among the changes afoot:
 
▪ More trees being cut down. The "maximum cutting zone" for removing vegetation around billboards would increase from 340 feet to 500 feet. In 2012, lawmakers expanded it from 250 feet, so this increase is nearly twice as big. The new laws come as Charlotte strives to increase its tree canopy coverage to 50 percent, through the work of Trees Charlotte and others. This would make that job considerably harder.
 
▪ Governments would have to pay billboard companies far more money to remove existing signs for a public works project. Under current law, the state has to pay for the value of the property and the sign. Under the new law, the state would have to pay the company for lost advertising revenue going years into the future. The N.C. League of Municipalities suggests the amount could be 10 times as much as is now required. The Sierra Club points to a similar change in Minnesota that forced the state to pay $750,000 for each billboard it removed, and even more for digital billboards.
 
▪ Rules would be loosened to allow companies to move their billboards from one part of town to another, including to areas where they are not currently allowed. At least one bill specifies that the state DOT shall not deny a billboard permit just because it violates local ordinances.
 
▪ Digital billboards could become much more commonplace. Lewis touts this as an effort to create a statewide emergency messaging system, though the president of the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association emphasizes "digital billboards also provide local businesses the opportunity to change their advertising messages throughout the day in an incredibly cost effective manner."
 
The billboard industry, like any other, has to be given reasonable room to operate. But the law must strike a balance that also protects taxpayers, local government control, trees and the beauty of our state.
"Professionals did all they could last time and they still passed the bill," Don McSween, the now-retired Charlotte arborist told the editorial board. "Now it's time for grassroots citizens to unite against stuff like this."
 
We agree. Let your legislators know what you think.

 
Legislative Fix to Texas' Billboard Ban is Racing Against End-of-Session Deadline
By Dug Begley
April 20, 2017
 
State lawmakers are racing against the clock to correct Texas' sign ordinance, struck down last year by an appeals court, or else "Keep Texas Beautiful" might take a two-year hiatus when it comes to billboards.
 
State House and State Senate committees both in the past week discussed legislation to make highway sign rules rely on prohibiting commercial use of signs near roadways and not on what message is being conveyed. The Texas House Transportation Committee passed its version of a fix Thursday morning. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate Transportation Committee, which discussed it Wednesday.
 
Without a change this session, Texas Department of Transportation officials said the state could lose its control of highway advertising until the legislature reconvenes in 2019, which has an outside chance of costing Texas approximately $300 million per year.
 
"If we were not to have any regulation, the (Federal Highway Administration) may say we would not be doing our duty with the federal highway beautification act," TxDOT executive director James Bass told lawmakers.
 
The federal law, which was championed by Texan and Former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, requires states that receive federal dollars to have rules curtailing the proliferation of advertising along federal highways. Washington can withhold 10 percent of the state's funds annually, which for Texas would be hundreds of millions of dollars.
 
Previously, the Texas Highway Beautification Act had different rules for commercial and public speech. Last year, based on federal court decisions, the Texas Third District Court of Appeals voided key parts of the state's rules because they infringed on free speech. The decision did not affect municipal bans on billboards, such as Houston's sign ordinance.
 
The case stemmed from a challenge by Auspro Enterprises, which owns the Planet K chain of smoke, erotica and novelty shops in the Austin and San Antonio area.
 
Auspro's owner, Michael Kleinman, placed a Ron Paul 2012 presidential campaign sign at the Planet K location in Bee Cave. When TxDOT ordered him to remove the sign, he took them to court for violating his freedom of speech.
 
TxDOT is appealing the ruling striking most elements of the sign rules, but in the interim wants lawmakers to approve new language that doesn't focus on what message is being conveyed but still allows for some sign restrictions.

"Trying to thread the needle on this is very hard," said State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who sponsored the senate version.
 
Rather than legislating based on content, the bills set standards for commercial signs where a landowner leases land for the purpose of erecting a sign visible from the roadway, or receives payment for placing messages on a sign.
 
Carving out various exceptions, such as signs advertising a business on the same property, the proposals would set the same limits on height and size and setbacks from highways that existed under the current law and locations where billboards are prohibited, such as the Sam Houston National Forest.
 
Even the fixes, however, have raised concerns from some lawmakers and lawyers.
 
"This is an attempt to recreate in, a different fashion, a regulatory scheme that is what was on the books before," said Russ Horton, an Austin lawyer who has litigated various sign restriction rules.
 
By dividing commercial and non-commercial signs based on how the sign is paid for, Horton said, also inhibits speech because courts have said the spending of money is an expression of speech.
 
"We are regulating two classes of speakers," Horton said, noting he believes rules on signs are necessary but must pass muster with courts.
 
Texas is not alone in looking for signs of how to restrict billboards. Federal courts, in affirming that sign bans cannot restrict free speech, have thrown many state laws into uncertainty. A federal judge in Memphis voided Tennessee's outdoor sign regulations earlier this month, and challenges are winding their way through the system in other states.
 
"We are kind of on the front edge of people going around and looking at it," Bass said of the Texas law, which was struck in August.
 
The critical issue, state officials and sign restriction advocates said, is Texas have something on the books.
 
"We're in a situation where we have two bites at the apple here," said Margaret Lloyd, vice-chairwoman of Scenic Texas. "We can work with the legislature to craft the legislation or we can wait for the courts to fix it."
 
Risking the court option, however, comes with the chance the state supreme court will uphold that the law in unconstitutional. If the law is struck and nothing replaces it, there would be no restrictions outside cities.
 
"There would be no regulation and you could potentially -- and I'm not saying this would happen -- but you could have one sign and someone else put another three feet in front of it," Bass said.

Lexington City Officials Weigh Electronic Billboards
By Stu Johnson
April 20, 2017
 
Lexington city leaders are beginning to evaluate the use of electronic billboards along certain roadways in the central Kentucky community.  The idea prompted a number of questions during Tuesday's council committee meeting.
 
Following state action, local governing bodies now have the authority to move forward with electronic billboards.  Representatives with Lamar Advertising appeared before the Environmental Quality and Public Works Committee.  Council Member Jennifer Mossotti asked Lamar General Manager Brian Sayre about electronic billboard capabilities. "I don't support the video digital where it's ongoing.  I just want the straight static because I think it's too much of a distraction, so you wouldn't be pursing it either? Asked Mossotti.
 
"Not at all.  We don't want it to flash, blink, scroll, any of that.  No video," responded Sayre.
 
Council Member Angela Evans says making changes to signs on a heavily commercial roadway like New Circle Road can still affect residents.  "It bothers me every time I hear people talk about New Circle Road and just think of it as a business zone.  It's more than that.  And they're people who care behind those businesses about what's going on, on that strip of road," explained Evans.  "So, we do need to value their opinions and their thoughts."
 
Brian Sayre says his firm is planning to convert 10 to 20 existing billboards, rather than installing new ones.  Since messages can easily be changed on electronic billboards, Council Member Kevin Stinnett says some existing traditional billboards would be removed.  The item will undergo further review in committee.

 
This Billboard REIT Has Plenty Of Buzz
By Brad Thomas
April 24, 2017
 
Summary
Well placed digital media is a perfect conduit for consumers to engage through social and mobile integration, and use apps more efficiently.
 
Today I am going to provide research on a billboard REIT that is also creating plenty of buzz.
I am initiating a BUY on OUT shares at the current price.
 
As many of you know, I am frequently in New York City, meeting with REIT executives or contributing on Fox (I will be on Fox & Friends this coming Friday morning).
 
While visiting New York, it's impossible to miss the eclectic mix of eye-catching billboards scattered across the town - from the Bronx Zoo to the Brooklyn Gardens, and hundreds of neighborhoods in between.
 
In fact, billboards are an essential element of New York City real estate, as they tower above most all buildings in prime locations, making them almost impossible to ignore.
 
Billboards in New York City create buzz, that in turn prompts the consumer to engage in a specific audience or direct them to the retailer's front door (real or virtual). Well placed digital media is a perfect conduit for consumers to engage through social and mobile integration, and use apps more efficiently.
 
It's not just the massive billboards that create buzz, New York City is also a primetime market for advertisers to display content on street furniture, buses, commuter rail, subways and sports stadiums.
 
Today I am going to provide research on a billboard REIT that is also creating plenty of buzz. I will be adding OUTFRONT MEDIA to my Intelligent REIT Lab (including in the Forbes Real Estate Investor newsletter).
 
 
A Billboard REIT
 
OUTFRONT Media is one of the largest out-of-home media companies in North America. The portfolio includes more than 400,000 digital and static displays, which are primarily located in the most iconic and high-traffic locations throughout the 25 largest markets in the U.S. The company went public (IPO) on March 28, 2014 and began operating as a REIT on July 17, 2014.

City Councilors Propose Billboard Committee
April 23, 2017
By Kiera Blessing
 
Members Would 'Scrutinize' Ads Proposed for City

 
METHUEN, MA - At least two city councilors are backing a proposal for a committee to oversee what advertisements appear on billboards.
 
Councilor Ron Marsan suggested creating the committee during the council's Tuesday meeting, after the councilors tabled a discussion about a proposed electronic billboard atop an existing pole. Marsan specifically noted the billboard at the corner of Pleasant Valley and Merrimack streets, which currently displays an add for a smartphone application called "weedmaps," referring to marijuana.
 
"I just don't like that we have these billboards and they can place anything they want on them at this point and I don't think that's right," Marsan told The Eagle-Tribune Thursday. During the meeting, he noted that "I have to read that every day. Kids have to read it."
 
But City Solicitor Richard D'Agostino said the council and the committee, if created, would have to walk a narrow line so as not to violate advertisers' First Amendment rights. Efforts to control freedom of expression have been struck down by the Supreme Court in the past as an infringement on the right to free speech.
 
"We have to narrowly focus on how we will address the public safety issues, and not (attempt) to limit or regulate what someone could say, but (rather) where the city's interest and the public's interest override the First Amendment interest of the expressionist, in this case, the billboard operator," D'Agostino said. "I'm not saying we can't do it - we'd have to tread very cautiously and very narrowly in our regulation."
Marsan said he "understand(s) we can't take down what's there - that's not my intent."
 
Instead, he said hopes the committee can act as a catalyst for "better discussion" about what appears on the billboards across the city.
 
"Everybody that has a billboard in the city has to come before a committee and tell us what they want to put on them," he suggested at the meeting. "Then we at least scrutinize what goes on it. We can't say yes or no. People have rights - we have to follow the law. But if they come before us, maybe we have some say and if we start setting precedent maybe they'll consider what they even applied for."
 
Councilor James Jajuga told The Eagle-Tribune Thursday that he, too, would like to see the creation of a billboard committee that could act as "a buffer" to what kind of ads appear in Methuen.
 
"My sense is that, if there was this committee created...I think that that would sort of act as a check and balance," he said. "The companies would think, 'Wait a minute, there's going to be scrutiny here.'
"Even if it's a fine line, it may tip in favor of the citizenry."
 
Residents faced a similar dilemma across the border in Plaistow, New Hampshire, last year when an electronic sign outside Mortgage Specialists, a business on the Haverhill line, displayed a profane word in reference to a politician.
 
Steve Ranlett, a Plaistow selectman, said he had received complaints but his hands were tied. "Unfortunately, (the sign owner) has a First Amendment right to post whatever he wants and there's nothing that the town of Plaistow or anybody can do."
 
John M. Greabe, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire who specializes in constitutional law, said at the time that the Mortgage Specialists sign "falls through the gaps" in a complicated legal gray area.
 
"When you're talking about a situation where ... he's got the permission to have a sign, it's harder," Greabe said. "Commercial speech can be regulated ... the problem is he's talking about politics, he's talking about what the heart of the First Amendment is supposed to be about.
 
"If you choose words, it's part of the message," he said. "I don't want to say you can't, but it's just tough to regulate on the basis of content."
 
Methuen might not face such challenges regulating the ads in town, since they are commercial speech.
"You can't ban them from your community. You have to accommodate them, but you can regulate how you accommodate them," said D'Agostino during the council meeting. He used adult stores as an example - municipalities can't ban them, but they can use zoning laws to restrict where they can do business.
 
"It's not that it's impossible to do, but if we embark on saying we're going to restrict the content, we are going to fail at the outset," D'Agostino said.
 
Marsan said he's discussed the committee idea with D'Agostino to determine its legal logistics. He said he anticipates making a formal proposal to create a committee in the near future.
 
"I don't know if I can regulate, but I'd like to at least know what's coming, and we'd be able to address it there," Marsan said.